Canon’s acquitted itself quite well with a nearly identical trio of flash-based AVCHD camcorders, the HF10/HF11/HF100, and follow-up models HF20 and HF200 manage to improve upon their legacy. The only difference between the two models is color and memory configuration: the HF20 has 32GB built in, while the HF200 has none. We tested the HF20.
Smaller and slightly less powerful than their twin brothers, the HF S10 and the HF S100, these models offer a physically smaller but longer 15x zoom lens and smaller, lower resolution 4-megapixel sensor. And though they retain much of the same feature set as those models, they don’t supply more enthusiast-oriented niceties like a manual control dial, zebra stripes, and color bars, or a pop-up flash. Still they’re a definite upgrade from the older versions. And while they’re both more expensive than competitors like the Sony Handycam HDR-CX100 and Panasonic’s HDC-TM20/SD20, those camcorders lack features some users consider essential regardless of camcorder size, including an accessory shoe, microphone input, and headphone jack, which the Canons provide. Like most all new models, however, the HF20 and HF200 lack an eye-level EVF.
You wouldn’t call it a featherweight, but the HF20/HF200’s 13.9 ounces is relatively light for a midrange camcorder, and its 2.8-inch-by-2.4-inch-by-4.9-inch dimensions mean it fits comfortably into a jacket pocket, albeit with some bulging. It’s very comfortable to grip and use, with the photo button and zoom rocker on a slight rise to fall naturally under your forefinger. Most of the shooting controls live on the LCD bezel. The function button pulls up both the frequently used settings as well as the full menu system another level down. In addition to the usual–white balance, image effects, digital effects, video quality, and still-photo size, program, and a handful of scene modes–the camcorders offer real shutter- and aperture-priority shooting modes with a shutter speed range of 1/8 to 1/2,000 second and aperture options ranging from f1.8 to f8, giving you more control over depth of field than you generally see in a consumer model, especially a compact one. It also offers Canon’s Cine mode for adjusting color and gamma to go with its 24F progressive modes, though it and 30F get recorded as 60i. In still mode you can select metering and drive modes as well. Other high-end features accessible via the menus include three fixed or variable zoom speed and x.v.Color mode.
Navigating down on the joystick while shooting triggers a fly-up menu to turn on the video light, digital effects, 3-second prerecord, backlight and exposure compensation, manual focus, mic level, and face detection. In still mode you gain flash and lose the prerecord. The menu system itself has been updated for a smoother feel and the ability to choose font size. Since the 2.7-inch display is the typical low-resolution model, the small fonts look pixelated and would be hard for some to read. It does stand up pretty well in direct sunlight, however. As we’ve seen with lots of camcorders, however, the recordings on the LCD look far more contrasty and blown out than the actual video, which means you can’t trust it for making exposure or white balance adjustments.
Like the HF S models, the HF20 and HF200 incorporate this year’s features, which include Video Snapshots, 4-second clips used to create a “highlights reel” effect (the camcorders ship with a music CD). I like the idea, but the implementation can be annoying. You enter Video Snapshot mode by pressing a hard-to-feel button on the left side of the camcorder in the LCD recess. A blue outline appears on the display. When you press record, a highlight travels around the blue outline counting down your 4 seconds. It stays in Video Snapshot mode until you switch to playback or press the button again. While I like the way the display feedback works, I think I might have preferred a separate record button, or a choice on the mode dial rather than the have the isolated button. (For a complete accounting of the HF20/200’s features, you can download the PDF manual.)
Performance and quality are top notch at both its maximum 24Mbps bit rate and at 17Mbps. (Recording capacities are about 5.5 minutes per gigabyte and 7.8 min/GB, respectively. Canon recommends a Class 4 or better SDHC card.) The camcorder focuses quickly and accurately, even in low light. Battery life is pretty good–about 1.5 hours–and Canon sells higher-capacity batteries to double or quadruple that. Unlike the HF S models, these don’t offer quick charging. The optical stabilizer, as usual, works well out to the end of the zoom range. I did run into a problem with it failing to recognize my SD card (a normally bulletproof SanDisk Extreme III 30MB/sec edition) after initializing it and using it for a couple clips, but I was unable to reproduce the problem. Having internal memory “just in case” may be worth the price tradeoff for some users.
The video looks great, especially considering the small lens: surprisingly sharp, with saturated colors, and excellent exposures with relatively few blown-out highlights. The DigicDV 3 processing does a solid job maximizing the dynamic range. Living-room light-level recordings look quite good as well. There’s a bit of noise and softness, but that’s to be expected. The audio records crisp and clear, too, though the microphone placement tends to pick up wind noise. There are some flaws, however. While they lack the fringing I saw on the higher-end models, outdoor shots do show a bit of haze over light, brightly exposed objects, and I think there’s a bit more ghosting than usual on fast moving subjects. Still-photos looked good and even a bit better than the HF S models, though they’re lower resolution.
The Canon Vixia HF20 and HF200 are excellent camcorders, but do cost a lot more than the competition. Of course, you could also look at it reversed: they’re smaller and less expensive than high-end models like the HF S10/S100, while offering a lot of the same features.